JOHN HUS, BURNED AT THE STAKE
By: Frank Tunstall
Richard II of England married Anne of Bohemia [modern Czechcloslavokia] in 1382, and the marriage opened the door for Bohemian students to study in Oxford in England. These students took the teaching of John Wycliffe back to Prague, where Wycliffe’s writing greatly influenced John Hus, the rector (lead priest) of the University of Prague.
Hus wanted to reform the Catholic Church in the same general categories that Wycliffe taught at Oxford. For just one example, the Bible, according to Hus, is the final tribunal, greater than the pope or any council of the universal church. Hus wrote:
“Every Christian is expected to believe explicitly and implicitly all the truth the Holy Spirit has put in Scripture, and this way a man is not bound to believe the sayings of the saints which are apart from scripture, nor should [they] believe papal bulls [decrees], except in so far as they speak out of scripture, or in so far as what they say is founded in scripture simply.”
The Roman Catholic Church, in contrast, claimed the absolute power of the keys to heaven, with the sole authority to bind and loose. This meant the church actually claimed the power to excommunicate and condemn people to hell; hence, Hus’ teaching was as unwelcome in Prague as was Wycliffe’s teaching in England. Catholic theology held the pope must be recognized as the sole arbiter of all truth; hence, whoever refused to obey the pope should die. Only the church [the pope and the cardinals] had the power to decide doctrine as well as the criteria for salvation.
Hus was adamant that Jesus Christ alone is the head of the church. The body of Christ, therefore, consists of all who worship Jesus. Hence, every sincere bishop or priest is a successor of the apostles, and the pope was not, nor could ever be, the head of the church.
Hus stood firm on the history of the church saying popes at times have contradicted themselves and have erred time and again, and have been corrected by later popes. To Hus, if the pope was living in grace he could be a vicar (priest) of Jesus Christ, but he could not be the head of the church. Only Jesus held that high position.
Hus’ understanding led to the idea that popes and cardinals who live ungodly lives are not worthy of obedience. Hus also preached it is the responsibility of the state, and not Rome, to enforce morality and decency among priests and laymen alike.
Hus, like Wycliffe, believed Rome should not own a third and more of the property in Bohemia and be free of taxes. Rome, however, held tightly to the land and expected the Bohemian churches to keep a steady stream of income flowing into the papal treasury.
Hus preached a person can have a personal relationship with God, without the need for any intermediary and outside the authority of the Church of Rome.
Hus rejected transubstantiation, saying no priest in a prayer of consecration can create the body and blood of Jesus.
For these and other views that were deemed heretical, the pope ordered Hus to come to the Council of Constance in Germany that met from 1414-1418 to defend his views. The Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Sigismund, granted Hus a writ of safe passage. But after Hus arrived at Constance, the emperor betrayed Hus and did not enforce it.
The Council charged and convicted Hus for heresy, and proceeded to charge and convict Wycliffe too, even though Wycliffe had been dead thirty-one years.
Hus was denounced as an incorrigible heretic and deprived of his priestly office. As part of the ceremony of defrocking Hus, a paper crown with three devils painted on it (fighting for Hus’ soul) was placed on Hus’ head. Then the Council committed Hus’ soul to the devil.
Hus was tied to a stake with ropes and a rusty chain, and bundles of wood mixed with straw were stacked to his chin.
Hus died singing and his ashes were thrown into the Rhine River. Wycliffe’s bones were exhumed and burned, giving his bones the punishment of a heretic that Wycliffe had escaped in life. His ashes were thrown into the Rhine too.
The teaching of Wycliffe and of his follower, John Hus, did not die out; instead, Wycliffe and Hus became popular martyrs. They both had a direct influence on Martin Luther. Wycliffe came to be recognized as the morning star of the Reformation.
A miniature picture in an old Moravian hymnal preserved in the University library at Prague makes the point. It shows Wycliffe seizing a torch, Hus lighting it, and Luther holding it aloft. “In my opinion, wrote Luther, “John Hus bought with his own blood the gospel which we now possess.”
The followers of Wycliffe were named Lollards, and they preached Wycliffe’s teachings to the common people all over England.
The followers of Hus were known as Taborites. The Taborites formed a group in the mid-1400s that in time became the Moravian Church, one of the earliest Protestant denominations.
Some of these Moravians living at Herrnhut, Germany, had a powerful visitation of the Holy Spirit in 1727, akin to the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. That outpouring of the Spirit launched one of the greatest missionary movements in the history of the Lord’s church; Moravians grew into one of the strongest missionary-sending denominations in the history of Christianity. In time, Moravians touched the whole world.
A young man named John Wesley was in a Moravian meeting in London on May 24, 1738. As he listened to the reading of Luther’s Preface to his Commentary on Romans, Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed.” Right there he said he trusted Jesus Christ alone for his salvation.
John Wesley, the father of Methodism in the 1700s, had a powerful influence on the birth of IPHC in the early 1900s, and several other holiness denominations as well.
I can imagine John Wycliffe and John Hus looking down from the glory world, feeling very happy and saying, “Thank you Jesus for enabling us to follow in your footsteps at Golgotha; the price you blessed us to pay was worth it.”
Based on my Masters Degree thesis, John Wycliffe and His Influence, 1370 – 1415 at the University of Tulsa, and on Christianity Through the Centuries, by Earl Cairns, Grand Rapids, MIchigan: Zondervan Pulishing House, 1954, pp. 275-277.